An essay by - Heather Spoonheim
All too often I hear fellow Atheists say, “Using the Bible as proof of God is like using a comic book as proof of Superman.” I always find this statement offensive because it shows a very malicious irreverence for a book that I greatly revere. I would like to encourage Atheists that are in the habit of using the above remark to consider saying, instead, “Using the Bible as proof of God is like using the Iliad as proof of the Greek Pantheon.”
I ask for this rephrasing not only because of my personal reverence for the Bible, but because it is a much more accurate comparison. The Bible, like the Iliad, is an important historical document that opens a window into the minds of antiquity. When I use the phrase, “historical document”, please do not falsely infer that I am implying that the bible accurately documents historical events by modern standards; I am simply stating that the Bible is a document of ancient origin which provides us with an invaluable glimpse into history. This glimpse offers astounding insight into the development of a mythology that has shaped the western world and an understanding of the very processes that generated the myth itself.
Comic books are entertaining and intended fictions that are known to be fictions by their contemporary readers. Comics are an integral part of contemporary society, and perhaps it might even be argued that they cast light on the way we view the world around us; it must be noted, however, that we have libraries full of literary works that reflect contemporary thought but access to the literature of antiquity is much more restricted and should therefore be much more highly regarded.
The repugnancy with which many Atheists view the Bible is unwarranted and only ever rationalized by those who are unable to dissociate the document from the institutions that assert the mythology to be literal. If these same institutions had determined to assert the literality of The Iliad instead, The Iliad would now be the book of western Atheist scorn. From an historical perspective, however, both of these books are truly a treasure and both should be equally cherished.
The Iliad mythologizes some ancient legends by documenting them in a very poetic form. The bible, on they other hand, not only mythologizes ancient legends, but then goes on to include roughly a millennium of reactions and extensions to that mythology. The bible is more than just a book; it’s a compact library of the works of authors whose lives spanned a thousand years. Few, if any, of the books in that library are works of fiction.
Some of the earliest authors collaborated over centuries to produce a wonderful collection of legends that some early Semites used to imagine their origins back to the first human beings. While these legends in and of themselves are mostly fabricated, it is likely that many of them have seeds in actual events. Those that were purely imagined weren’t likely intended as fictions but rather as proposed explanations for the origins of man and his world.
Some authors documented how early kings declared their lineages to tie directly into the earliest legends. This is not an uncommon practice in monarchies and there are monarchs today whose lineages do not stand up to much scrutiny. Such documentation is an astounding example of how far back this sort of practice goes.
There are excellent examples of ancient prophecy that use prophetic language that humbles modern prophets. Good prophecy is not fiction at all, for it is a poetic reflection of the mindset of an age. Good prophecy promises justice in times of injustice, peace in times of war, and war in times of monotonous peace. A lot of truth about the present can be found in prophecy, just not in the future that the prophecy predicts.
There are books of law, colourful descriptions of battles, and early observations of nature that are all painted in the context of supernatural beings interacting directly with the physical realm. This supernatural context is not added as a tool of fiction but represents, in fact, the way in which Bronze Age authors viewed the world around them. To this very day we paint our narratives of war as battles between good and evil, although nowadays we more frequently use the terms freedom and fascism. Acts of nature still fill us and our descriptions with supernatural imagery.
My point is that we would all be rather insulted if the sum body of all of our writings were viewed in a thousand years as amounting to nothing more than pulp fiction. The literature of an age reflects its zeitgeist. Reexamination of history often shows us just how much colour was added by our grandparents and reveals details that they could have never imagined. I can’t imagine how my grandfathers would have felt had they lived to learn the true nuclear capabilities of the Soviets.
The bible is much more than fiction. It ties all the hallmarks of good mythology together with historical events as they were known and understood at the time. It reflects the way in which Judaism defined itself and its pride. It illustrates the elation and the horror with which a culture might greet the fulfillment of one of its most hallowed prophecies. It tangibly illustrates the passion with which mankind seeks to escape his own mortality. So compelling is its promise of eternal life and happiness that it has been able to inspire or absolve all of the atrocities ever committed by those who knew it.
So elastic is this mythology that it can be simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. It can be reshaped to provide absolution to anyone and eternal damnation to everyone else. It can even continue to shape minds that have become fully cognizant of the myth so that they will persist in clinging to the central notion that there is a god and a purpose behind everything. In consideration of all of this I resubmit that this astounding Bronze Age library of mythology blended with history deserves more reverence than a comic book.